Blundering Blurbers

Philosophical ruminations.
May 25 1999 3:30 AM

Blundering Blurbers

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Duked Out Citing long-standing unresolved ethics and safety violations, federal authorities suspended human experimentation at the Duke University Medical Center for four days in May. The experiments ranged from drug tests to research on psychological reactions to illness. Among the alleged violations: "insufficient training" of review board members, "potential financial conflicts of interest with some board members," and inadequate supervision of informed-consent procedures. (Federal investigators also uncovered an incident in which a space-walk experiment volunteer briefly lost consciousness.) The ban was lifted after Duke agreed to overhaul its procedures for protecting human subjects. The government also warned the City University of New York and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine to clean up their safety procedures or face shutdowns of their federally financed human research.

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Legal Omertà

Closed Chambers, Edward Lazarus' behind-the-scenes exposé of political wrangling at the Supreme Court, continues to generate controversy. Lazarus, who clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun, earned the opprobrium of legal scholars, other clerks, and the justices for making internal court business public in his book, published last year. Now Anthony Kronman, the dean of Yale Law School who blurbed the hardcover edition of the book as "well-researched and wonderfully written," has formally apologized to the Supreme Court and sent a letter of explanation to Yale Law School alumni. Declaring that his initial enthusiasm for the book constituted a "real lapse" in judgment, Kronman said he believes former clerks are bound to silence about the court's nonpublic discussions and activities. According to USA Today, Kronman's blurb will not appear on the paperback edition of the book due out this month.

Little Big Man

New York Review of Books writer Thomas Powers stands accused of ignorance, incompetence, and racial stereotyping by 32 Native American studies scholars for his review of several books about Native Americans. Powers, a journalist who has written about spycraft and the atomic bomb, drew the ire of the scholars, led by Patricia Hilden of the University of California at Berkeley and Arnold Krupat of Sarah Lawrence College, who wrote that he had "little or no detailed knowledge of Native American scholarship" and that he reproduced tired clichés about Native American figures and traditions. "We are quite certain that no one of us would be asked to review books in Mr. Powers's fields," the signatories declared in a letter in the May 20 issue. Powers expressed bafflement at the charges, concluding that the letter "amounts to an attempt to intimidate ... me from writing about 'their field.' " The Review's editors concurred: "It is hard to take seriously academics who condemn an independent scholar without making a single substantive criticism of his work."

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The Academics Strike Back

Star Wars hoopla visits academia, reports the Dallas Morning News. Some scholars view the original Star Wars film as a simplistic Cold War allegory that helped to legitimize Ronald Reagan's view of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and to build popular support for a "star wars" missile defense. Others reverse the movie's ideological lenses, arguing that filmmaker George Lucas based his "evil emperor" on Richard Nixon and Darth Vader on Henry Kissinger. Finally, others charge that Star Wars represents a covert remake of Birth of the Nation. "The narrative homologies between Birth of a Nation and Star Wars click beyond the possibility of accident," writes Clyde Taylor of Tufts University. "Darth Vader (dark invader?) is the upstart commander of 'black' political forces, threatening a weakened, but spiritual, refined, and honor-bound version of the 'South.' ... [R2-D2 and C-3PO] take the place of those sassy, back-talking darky house servants, of equally mechanical loyalty to their betters." Whatever their differences, the scholars agree on Star Wars' enduring impact on American culture.

Eyes on the Prize

The Bancroft Prize, given to honor the best works of American history, was awarded this year to two books on slavery and one on the (hostile) relations between Native Americans and settlers. The books are Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, by the University of Maryland's Ira Berlin; Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry, by William and Mary's Philip D. Morgan; and The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, by Boston University's Jill Lepore.

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